6

Mr. or Ms.?

My oldest son, Peanut, was reading to his dad while I read to the youngest. We were spread across my big bed, west to east: 44, 8, 41, 4. And Peanut was reading something mythical that involved Dukes and Duchesses. But he didn’t know what those titles meant. So his dad explained briefly about Prince and Princess versus Duke and Duchess in the way that only postcolonial, anti-feudal Americans can.

credit hotblack via morguefile

The gist of it was: peripheral royalty, different word for each gender.

“What would Jay be?” Peanut asked.

It’s been six months since Jay died. I’ve written about him often, including once since his death.

And in none of those posts did I mention that he was transgendered. Mostly because it’s none of my business. Part of being an ally means that friends who are different from me aren’t marked by what they are or how they self define, but by my relationship to them. I said as much to my son when he called someone at school gay.

Jay wasn’t just my friend who was born an adorable Mormon girl and lost family and Church and marriage as he found out who he was. He was my friend, a kind dad who was also a mom; a human who had great days and bad days but was always nice even to really dreadful people. And who he was—day to day—was more important to how I thought of our relationship than the long road that brought him into my life.

And Peanut knew Jay as kind and funny and awesome. And he also vaguely knew Jay used to be a woman, because it had come up in a conversation about being who you really are inside. So I told him casually about transgender people when it was pertinent to the discussion. I didn’t bring it up to shock or preach or titillate. I mentioned Jay being able to finally be who he really was, because it was part of what we were talking about that day.

And after a few questions entirely appropriate for a kindergartener (which he was, at the time), it was just another fact about another friend. No big deal. Never came up again, nor should it have.

But this week, six months after Jay died, six months after he left his new wife and their blended family of three kids to figure out how to live without him, Peanut asked if Jay would have been a Duke or a Duchess.

I choked back the sob of surprise and pain that catches all of us unaware just as we’ve learned to live with loss. And I tried my best to answer.

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“Well, back in the time that book is talking about, a long time ago, people believed you are what you’re born. They didn’t talk about people wanting to be a different gender, or about wanting to marry someone from the same gender, or about women having jobs or anyone voting. So Jay would have been born a Duchess, and even if he wanted to, he couldn’t be a Duke. There were definitely people back then who didn’t feel right in their bodies, and some who wanted to be different than they were born. But it just didn’t happen. People didn’t like difference.”

He frowned. “But if everybody agreed that it’s okay to…if everybody agreed…if…” He couldn’t find the words he wanted. “If everybody agreed it was okay to be whoever you really are, then could Jay have…?” He paused and waited.

“Do you mean could he have changed his body? Did they know about hormones and the way bodies become men and women bodies?”

“Yeah.”

“No, they didn’t know about the science of bodies. And so even if everyone agreed that Duchess Jay could go ahead and be himself as Duke Jay like some people do now, he wouldn’t have been able to take the hormones that gave him a beard and a lower voice and things like that. They didn’t know about hormones, and they didn’t have the science to make them and give them to Jay.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, buddy?”

“What.”

“You don’t need everybody to agree for you to be who you are. You just need a few allies, people who believe in you and support you. Doesn’t matter everyone else thinks.”

And I kept reading to Butterbean, telling myself I could cry later.

Because even more painful than the fact that I’ll never see Jay again, can’t talk to him and can only see his kids in a new house without him, is the idea that for thousands of years of human existence, Jay would have had no idea he could be anyone else, would have had no way to become who he really needed to be. I can’t imagine living in a world like that, where Jay would have been and remained and felt wrong as Julie.

But I’ll bet in that world we would have been friends. Because Jay’s friendship wasn’t about gender, not when I met him and not when I found out about his transition. Or his pregnancy. Or his cancer.  Friendships aren’t usually about gender. Who Jay was for me is entirely defined by what kind of friend he was. And that wasn’t based on anatomy or hormone profile or what existed under his clothes. It was based on his heart.

I miss you, Jay.  And I don’t care whether you’re a Duke or a Duchess. I just really miss your kind heart.

 

 

8

Reasonable Question

“Mommy, you know how you don’t love Daddy anymore…I mean, not that you don’t love him or not that you don’t like him, but you know how he makes you sad when he yells at you? Well, do we have to have two camp sites when we go camping?”

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blink.

“Well, honey, some day we probably will have two camp sites. And that might be fun because Daddy will cook on his campfire and I will cook on my campfire, and you can choose which campfire dinner to eat. And you can even choose to eat both!”

“Yeah!”

“For now, we still share a campsite. And we’re a family, even if we live in two houses or have two campsites.”

“And even if we have two marshmallow fires, right?”

“Yeah, Butterbean. Even then. It sounds pretty good to me to have two marshmallow fires.”

“Me, too.”

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But it doesn’t sound good to me. It sounds like what we have to do, to be civil and keep the best of what we have to offer the kids, but I’m lying to my son when I say it sounds good to have two marshmallow fires. It sounds like a waste of wood and excessive pollution and too much work. Two campfires sounds to me like the acrid smell that won’t wash out of my hair for two days isn’t even my smell; it belongs, in part, to someone else and it follows me around for the better part of the week, surprising me with an acid taste in my mouth each time I move my head quickly.

Everyone all together was my hope for their childhoods and for my marriage. I don’t want to offer them two homes instead of one, and I don’t want to pay two rents  instead of one. But that’s our reality. Together, Spouse and I fight. Apart we are much kinder. And I’m not going to rehash here the time honored “but they’re happier now and you’re happier now and sometimes marriages just don’t work but you’re doing a great job of making them feel loved even though clearly you made bad choices and probably shouldn’t even be allowed to have children because you’re so bad at decision making” cycle of self loathing some divorced parents go through. Okay, that I go through.

I will say that it’s uncomfortably hard to tell my kids they can’t have the comfort of having everyone who loves them sleep in one house. Or that we can’t split the team and play man-to-man at book-reading time. Instead, there are really only groups of three, and they have to learn to get a lot less solo attention. They’re the center of a Venn diagram, and one of the adults is generally shut out.

What killed me about the campsite question is that he knows there aren’t easy words to put to the situation: it’s not a lack of love or a lack of like…it’s a dynamic between two people who bring out each other’s worst. And they saw it. We were two people treating each other like adversaries instead of partners. And my children felt it. They treat each other like adversaries, too. I feel the guilt of that hourly.

But now they see that two adults can choose to stop being a bad pair and become better people alone. That people can choose to examine their problems and find a solution. A kind solution. A gentle solution. An unwanted but necessary solution.

Later this month I’m giving a talk on finding your blog voice. And staying true to my own writing voice has meant being honest. I don’t blog so I can put on a mask and pretend. For that I have theater. But a blog voice also means permanence and not writing something I’ll regret and want to delete years later. A blog voice means addressing the pain but knowing that just beyond the empathetic friends and sympathetic readers is a future employer who might read this as part of a decision-making process. So being honest and being forever is challenging in transitions like a divorce. I have to talk about solutions but not really explain the problem. I’m not here to air my marriage and its failings. I’m not going to degrade my co-parent in a public forum. And I can’t be here in full therapy mode. That’s not me hiding the truth. But it’s not me being completely frank, either. I’m not comfortable here, right in between a rock and a brick wall.

This blog is where I tell my stories, and aching for my kids that their family seems incomplete, no matter how we configure it, is my story right now. I want to tell that story. Carefully.

Thankfully, my sons’ version of this story is a delightful revisionist world in which they get double marshmallows.

Maybe they’ll share with you.

 

photo credit: John Morgan via creative commons

photo credit: John Morgan via creative commons

 

12

Group storytelling

As our family dissolves its current form and grows again to a new structure, we’re developing dozens of lovely traditions.

And my absolute favorite is the family story.

We talk each day about our favorite parts of the day, and our biggest challenges; we talk about gratitude and feelings.

And now, when the kids seem bored, when we share time together, when we travel in the car, and especially when dim lighting and clean teeth spell the end of the day, we invent a story. Together. Sometimes as three people, and sometimes as four. Each person tells one sentence of a new story. Each subsequent person builds upon it. Until it’s done. And then we do it again.

Tonight:

There once was a tree with several leaves.
And nearby there was a tree with lots of leaves.
And those two trees began growing toward each other.
One day they touched together.
And they began dripping honey.
And they grew together some more.
And they spilled all the honey on the ground.
This made them fight.
A bear stopped by to say, “Don’t worry, there’s enough honey for everyone.”
So every animal in the forest came and took what they needed.
And the trees were happy.
And the animals were happy.
And full of honey.
The End.

 

10

Part time job

My kids accompanied me to the post office, and they balked at getting out of the car.

I told them they had to come in, and they rolled their eyes.

The post office housed a handful of people who weren’t in the mood, I could tell from their mirthless stares, for small boys. But as a paying customer, I silently recalled my breastfeeding mantra: “Anyplace I have a legal right to be, I have a legal right to do this.” I don’t think the law covers giggling children who want to rearrange postal products, but I tried not to think about such technicalities.

As each person before us in line approached the counter, explained their purpose, and paid, the boys grew more silly, more wiggly, more frustrating. Not their fault. Nobody likes standing in line. But such is life, occasionally, and they were going from play time to more play time, so they needed to learn to occupy themselves when bored.

And then eight-year-old Peanut spotted a coin near the front desk. He lunged across the room and prostrated himself on the low-pile industrial carpet hoping his treasure wasn’t a mirage.

I asked him to please get up.

His brother joined him.

I asked them to please get off the floor.

They wriggled around, quietly. Intently.

I asked them to please, please come stand by me.

The four-year-old grunted a bit, pressed for air as he snuffled along on his belly, covering himself in decades of federal-service filth, “We’re finding money!” I tried not to laugh. They’re so darned delicious and I so need bits of the unusual and ridiculous in my life.

And suddenly the room full of grousers smiled. I looked around. They were happy the little urchins were calm. I hated to admit it, but I was, too. It was disgusting to watch, and it was embarrassing to spend the rest of the day with abhorrently dirty children.

But Peanut made 78 cents, and Butterbean earned 35 cents, just by slithering all over a post office carpet for a few minutes.

At this rate we’re going to have their college funds fully loaded by December.

Look for us at a post office near you.

6

Open Tabs

My draft list of ideas to post includes seven items, none of which I have time for tonight.

Instead, I’ll regale you with a story of how many tabs I have open right now: 38 total.

I have 20 tabs in one window, which is exclusively for the research I’m doing for a client project. At least four of those are PDFs with more than 56 pages to read. And with an air-tight NDA, that’s about the most I can tell you.

I have 18 tabs in another window, which comprises my personal search results. This includes:
1. Some Bored Panda stuff for the reluctant little carpooling friend who’s scared to come over. I want to briber her with carefully curated content she can see and I can then send to her parents for an evening showing with her older brother.
2. Several Instructables, including kinetic arts and dragons’ egg
3. Recipes I know the kids will help me make and eat, like baked granola bowls for serving yogurt
4. A New Republic article on Updike that my buddy Matt Bucher linked to on the Twitters, the article itself representing not much more than my wish that somehow reading it will get someone to sponsor a conference so a nice group of us can have another dinner together.
5. Some FTP client file management tutorials including character encoding verification dialogs that made me cry when I read them, because foreign language
6. A Five Dials special issue memorializing David Foster Wallace
7. A Brain, Child article on introverts
8. Event website mounting a search for local half-marathons
9. Pinterest boards of emergency bags so I can remember to update our earthquake supplies and manually backup my computer

I need to close these tabs. I need to schedule email time and not respond outside those hours. I need to schedule some yoga time, too.

And I need to pull out a book, after closing those tabs.

Dozens of open tabs that signify all I *want* to be doing but clearly am not. Tabs that promise efficiency and productivity “if I just have five minutes…”

But maybe I really will attend to those pressing and compelling matters, the portals to which I’ve opened by the wonders of the Interwebs. I try the email thing first, before closing all the work I did to find those tabs in the first place. Because life is too short to throw away all your useful web searching time by closing valuable tabs.

And don’t tell me to Instapaper the pages, by the way. I never read the articles I save there.

How many tabs do you have open, and do you actually read them, or just spend weeks wanting to read them?

 

4

Trying Hard Not to Rearrange Furniture

I texted friends yesterday that I might need them to come help me move furniture. By the time they replied their faux excitement about the prospect of carrying my stuff around the house, I told them it might not be necessary.

Maybe.

When I’m stressed, I rearrange furniture. As a child whose family relocated a lot, and as an adult who has moved 17 times since freshman year of college, I learned that change comes in big, obvious, irreversible phases that look like new opportunities amongst the rearranged furniture. Moving to a new place was always about hope and new starts and gentle change. Because everything’s still there, just the space is different.

When my adrenals rattle my teeth with doses of neurochemicals that say I should panic, I connect the sensation with living somewhere new. So I either move or I change the whole layout of the house. I don’t actually plan to move right now, so I need to make my house look as though I’ve moved.

(Totally not my house. I love how that weird suburban McMansion photo shoot used light and a throw rug to make me think they really rearranged. False. My kind of rearranging means this room would have the furniture from another room and all this fly-fishing-cabin stuff would be in the kids’ room. Or garage. Rearranging isn’t moving something two feet. It’s relocating and purging until you don’t recognize the room at all.)

But didn’t I just rearrange a few months ago? Some of the furniture left to go to Spouse’s new apartment. Some got sold. And some went downstairs this week because I’m getting a new roommate.

Yep. I’m 41 years old, newly single parent, and I’m taking on a boarder to help cover the rent. All I have to do is start cooking cabbage and washing neighbor’s laundry and I’ll be a set-piece in a late-Nineteenth-Century American novel.

School started last week, which has unnerved me, too. So the need to rearrange is likely stemming from big changes. But still everyone is healthy and reasonably happy. Despite the separation, the boys’ dad spends a lot of time at our house being a parent and showing the kids that he’s not leaving.

That means, though, his admirable efforts at making the boys feel loved and safe are all. up. in. my. face.

Poor guy. He came over last weekend so I could work. And after a long day of chasing after kids and bikes and scooters, he took a shower.

But he put a new soap in the shower. After I opened the shower door and saw it, I called him to the bathroom and extensively explained the concept of leaving things as you find them. He has thoughtfully moved tons of my stuff in the past few months, and it’s driving me crazy. I put my running shoes by the door so I don’t forget them, he puts them in the closet where they belong. I put the kids’ lunch boxes on the counter because they need to be washed, he puts them in the cupboard where they should be. I hang a jacket on a doorknob because it needs to go into storage, he puts it back in the closet where it used to live. I might have used the phase “You’re welcome here, but you don’t live here, so stop deciding where stuff goes,” instead of biting my tongue, as I should.

For years we’ve been using the nicer downstairs shower. But that is now part of the in-law rental unit, and I’ve consolidated everything from both bathrooms into the smaller one upstairs. And it felt nice and grownup and efficient to finally have a space that nobody in the whole family uses but me.

My shower.  MY shower.

And then I come home after banging my brains against a federal grant proposal, and there’s a soap MY SHOWER.

I am fully aware that he didn’t do anything wrong. The guy wanted soap. It doesn’t matter whether he thought I forgot or couldn’t find the soap, or whether he didn’t think anything at all except “I need soap.” It’s a fair desire, that of having soap in a drenching cubicle whose primary purpose is cleaning. I can’t fault him for wanting, finding, and getting soap.

Except it was my shower. MY shower. Was. Now it has ex-partner-who-wanted-soap-and-found-soap-and-added-soap tainted idea-germs all over it. I don’t want his ideas in my shower.

That’s so stupid I can barely type it. But this is my blog and my truth, so I’m willing to be crazy here, even if only for a little…well, okay, most of the time.

But it comes down to this simple and difficult reality: separating from a partner with whom I will coparent for a long, long time is genuinely challenging. I like the world black and white, not grey. I want extremes. And when I am part of a relationship that ends, I want it to actually end.

Surprise that’s not a surprise: there’s no ending a relationship with a co-parent. We’re not teenagers anymore and we can’t just stop calling each other and avoid each other at the mall. This is joint-back-to-school-night territory, y’all.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been prepared for the apocalypse, as long as that catastrophic upheaval involves the complete inability to buy soap. I once had a roommate laugh, “Well, at least we’re prepared for the next Great Soap Famine,” unwittingly insensitive to the hoarding tendencies that make me collect soap in neat rows at the back of bathroom cupboards. I had rows and rows of soap in the hall cupboard of many of those 17 apartments, but I’ve been working to whittle down the stock since moving back to the Bay Area several years ago. I don’t need to prepare for the emergency poverty that might strike and leave me without soap (or any means of buying soap). I don’t need to imagine a time when there’s no soap at the store or no open stores when I need soap or no…I don’t know what. I don’t know why I hoard soap. It’s not as though I shower that much. I just know I need to stop hoarding soap. I have enough, I tell myself as I pass the soap aisle. I have enough, I am enough, I will always have enough, I will always be enough.

Don't worry...I would never ever hoard unwrapped soap. They get goopy after a while, you know.

Don’t worry…I would never ever hoard unwrapped soap. They get goopy after a while, you know.

But since Butter was conceived five years ago, I’ve been hoarding shower gel. Not using it, because I do prefer soap. But paring down the soap collection has me compelled to build a shower gel stash. I shouldn’t call it a hoard. That diminishes the mental illness that genuine hoarders have. I only have six or seven half-gallon bottles of shower gel. Whenever Grocery Outlet has the big 32-ounce size of my favorite brand of natural, toxin-free beauty products, I buy the shower gel. And shampoo. And conditioner. But not compulsively. That would be crazy. I only buy another jug of organic cleansing products if the scent is right. There’s no use hoarding gardenia shampoo or rose conditioner. I don’t want my apocalypse miserable, people. I just want to be prepared. And really, really, really clean for the zombies. Or maybe prepared in the event that bake sales in the zombie age become soap sales.

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I only have three half gallons of shampoo, four of conditioner, and six of shower gel. And that’s totally normal and not at all weird.

So my new shower, my space that meant embracing change and taking a deep breath and accepting hard choices…that shower had shower gel but no soap. That shower, the one we haven’t used in the three years since we moved in, was old and small, but refreshing and cozy and mine. And grownup. So I pulled out of the cupboard matching half-gallon pump bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. No soap so that the tiny soap dish could be for a razor. So that I wouldn’t have to clean soap-drip off the cramped walls. So that I could freaking have something in this world the way I want it without worrying about sinking into soapless poverty.

And now the man who is permanently part of my life but not of my future, who is a committed co-parent but a distant memory, who is familiar but now a stranger—that man put soap in my shower.

So I told him not to put soap in the shower. I explained my plan and my shower gel and my need to feel like I own something. And to fight the panic of that by embracing a decrease in the shower gel stock.

He understood. And he was gracious about it. He is back to being gracious about my brands of crazy, now that he gets to live somewhere else. Or stay somewhere else most of the time and come over to be with his kids and hear theories on soap use now and then.

I was glad he understood.

But then the next day he rearranged the shower gel and the shampoo and put them in the wrong places and now the shower is ruined.

I just can’t even.

Poor guy. He’ll never understand. He just doesn’t get it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. He doesn’t have to understand my kind of crazy.

I just always hoped he would.

And last night, when I mentioned the text to my friends asking for furniture help, my co-parent offered to help me rearrange the garage. Full on “pull everything out, purge some stuff, reorganize the rest, and put it all back” hour-long garage shuffle. The type he’s fought for years.

I told him that he’s a very kind person to help me engage in my favorite form of free therapy: work out panic with heavy physical labor.

Maybe he does actually understand my crazy.

Or maybe he feels guilty about the soap.

I'm starting to think I have a real problem, because this photo makes me twitchy. The soap is broken. The. Soap. Is. Broken. That is very bad.

I’m starting to think I have a real problem, because this photo makes me twitchy. The soap is broken. The. Soap. Is. Broken. That is very bad.

 

2

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Peanut has been fascinated by caves for a long time. His only visit to a cave was in utero, when Spouse and I went to Karchner Caverns in Arizona. I was seven months pregnant and had several almost-panic-attacks while underground. Humidity, claustrophobia, and pregnancy-induced inability to breathe made the cave terrifying. But gorgeous. And somehow that must have stuck with him.

Mmmmm. Cave bacon.

We’ve watched the cave episode of Planet Earth maybe five times in a year. He can’t stop talking about a cave movie they watched at school last year.

He’s been asking to go to a cave for months. And I mostly assumed that outside Mammoth Caves and Carlsbad, there aren’t many around us.

Foolish Muggle.

When I finally looked on the googles, I found caves that are literally on the way to our big Tahoe camping trip every year.

So we crammed the kids in the car and tolerated their incessant bickering to see this (all photos below are mine):

 

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Helictites make me think of Unicorns. And this cave had millions of them.

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See? Unicorn horns.

I had forgotten how miraculous it feels to crawl through a small hole in the heat-cracked earth and arrive in a cool, wide, dark tomb carved over tens of thousands of years by slightly acidic water.

We have a friend who caves, but Peanut has only met her once and thus can’t be duly impressed by her hobby/avocation. I want to send her the following photos, though, because we can lure her out to California.

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How about a pool 150 feet down from the cave entrance?

It’s intensely beautiful to watch kids stare way up and then waaaaaay down to learn the difference between stalactites and stalagtites.

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I see you hiding in the draperies, bacon. Sparkly calcite cannot disguise your mock deliciousness.

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Forgot to ask if this white residue on this flowstone was more of the moon milk we saw on the walls. Mmmm. Bacterial moon milk.

 

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I love this dinosaur-mouth configuration so much.

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Theatrical lighting wholeheartedly approved. Wowzers.

The best part wasn’t even the cave, which is saying a lot. The best part was the rock shop on the way out.

A bit of background: I love rock shops more than any single thing in my life, kids notwithstanding. Maybe. Depends on the day. I have dozens, really and truly dozens, of childhood memories of rock shops. I can tell you exactly which rock I bought or found and at which rockshop of patch of earth for every rock ever obtained from the time I was 7. Seriously. I distinctly remember why each of those rocks called to me. Because they call loudly.

And I cannot be dragged from a rock shop until I’m done. Forget can’t…I will not. Not that I’d know. Nobody has ever tried. I have lovely memories of my parents waiting for me at rock shops. Of being left alone to wander, gently touch, careful consider while they were…ah, hell, I don’t know where they were. I can’t imagine they were looking, too. Bored at the door? Consuming secret cookie stashes while I wasn’t looking? I never considered them, selfish rockhound that I am. I’m guessing they were patient at first. And I’m guessing that they got bored, or that my brother got bored, or that I somehow tried everyone’s patience. But know what? I don’t remember caring one whit whether everyone was exasperated with the rock shop or not. I was prepared to spend all day filling my one-ounce cup with perfect rock chip specimens, even if it killed my whole family.

So when my boys entered the rock shop after an hour below ground in a majestic cave, I rather expected them to shrug and ask for candy. My poor sugar-denied kids always ask for candy. And I always say no.

Anticipating their request and their disinterest in the rock shop, I made a beeline to the rock candy I saw as soon as we entered, and waited for them to follow. I was going to make this cave, this rock shop, memorable for my kids, who likely cared more for sugar than for rocks.

But the little guy ignored me and stood, eyes wide, in front of the pick-your-own-rocks barrel. Fill a bag with any rocks you choose? Any at all? My idea of heaven and his idea of…a whole afternoon of joy. He’s four, y’all. And he spent 20 minutes choosing the best rocks. Never once did he see me at the candy display. He was so engrossed in rock selection that he didn’t look up even when his dad offered tiger’s eye rocks for the bag. “Dad,” he said without looking at either the man or the stone, “this is my choice. Stop it.”

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Not bad for a pink-obsessed 4yo…these were his actual selections and he’s still quite proud of them.

No DNA test needed.

The eldest wandered aimlessly. It was as though he couldn’t find the right rock. I let him be, scouring the shelves for rocks that were one part neglected, one part magic, one part architectural marvel, and one part undervalued.

Butter finished his rock bag. He appreciated the rock candy. We went outside with his dad to slurp and ponder his treasure.

And still Peanut wandered. I chose my rock carefully. I triple checked to be sure I wasn’t missing anything on the shelves.

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And still he wandered.

I stayed back and watched for a while. I showed him my finds and he seemed duly unimpressed. I offered suggestions for areas in which to look for something that might speak to him.

And he seemed stymied. No break-your-own-geodes because his aunt and uncle gave him the best geodes ever two years ago, and he doesn’t want more. No dogtooth calcite, for reasons only a psychologist will be able to discern. No broken shark teeth because he found real, intact, beautiful fossilized shark teeth with his dad at the beach. No arrowheads because, “Mom, who would want that? They’re replicas!”

And then he found the select-a-pendant-and-cord display.

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He chose his treasure quickly. Clearly not a natural specimen, and he doesn’t care. Clearly on a weak bale, and he doesn’t care. Clearly exactly and precisely the man-shaped rock he needs right this very minute oh my gawd I can’t wait. He appreciated his rock candy, but not as much as his necklace.

He made it to the car before he realized his necklace had already fallen off.

Parking lot of gravel. Grey rock on grey cord.

A lot of looking.

Butter found it for him, how I’ll never know. In the middle of the parking lot.

So we have our cave experience. And our rocks. We don’t have any more rock candy. But it was as delicious as any Doozer sugar sculpture*.

* I read that Doozers’ buildings are allegedly radish dust, but those are clearly made of sugar. My entire childhood will be a lie if Doozer buildings aren’t basically rock candy.

So we’ve visited our first cave. And our first rock shop. And our first rock tragedy was narrowly averted by a hero within our own family.

All, my friends, ALL was right with the world in that moment.**

**Except that almost nothing is right with the larger world right now, and that rock candy might not be a Doozer creation. But I’m trying to not have a sad on my cave and rock post. Because perfection.

 

 

10

Standing ’round the sink

A few months ago, J.C. Little, The Animated Woman, wrote a post about how much her family has bonded over washing dishes together.

And I thought briefly about washing the dishes with my kids. J.C. made it sound so tactile and engaging, so warm and sudsy. And I recalled doing dishes with my stepmom, talking.

But I also remembered reaching into the cool-ish, dirty water to fish out whatever was on the bottom: slime, forks, or a sharp knife.
*Shudder*
No thank you, J.C.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen. What? You don't know.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen.
What?! You don’t know.

But her post gave me an idea. Six days before I read that lovely post about family bonding over dishes, my sometimes-washer-of-dishes moved to another house. So I’d been doing 100% more dishes by myself for a few days. And I didn’t like it. Not that washing dishes is a big deal. But when you have extremely limited time, most of which is crammed with paid and unpaid activities promised to someone else, washing dishes is a big ol’ “seriously, would paper plates really ruin the world if I used them just until I submit the next big project?” tirade of justifications and pouts while scraping preschooler rejects into the compost.

So the next morning I asked my eight-year-old Peanut to empty the dishwasher, please. He shrugged and emptied the whole thing. It was the first time I’d asked him to this, but he’s an enormously bright boy and member of the family and has thus experienced the acquisition of clean dishes from cupboards. He could therefore extrapolate the placement of clean dishes in the same cupboards. [May that be proof, some day, when his partner claims he 'doesn't know where anything goes.'] The next time I asked, four-year-old Butter clamored to help. He’s big on helping. And they got along, doing the job I rather hate, while I made dinner near them.

We were all in the kitchen, excited, mobile, talking, and thanking each other for various tasks that helped the family. Peanut even devised the most brilliant plan, ever: put all the forks in one compartment of the silverware basket, spoons in another, and so on. That way, he pointed out, when we empty we can grab a whole section and just dump it into the right section of the drawer. I marveled at his genius. And I refrained from telling him I’d heard of this maniacally organized plan for dishwasher loading but could never bring myself to spend that much energy on organization of dirty silverware. So we ooh and aah over the boy’s idea, we listen to his argument about the finer points of his plan, and we do it his way. And now he thinks he’s the King of the family.

Wait a minute, here, J.C.! Turns out this trick works even if you *have* a dishwasher!

I’d always said before I had kids that I’d have them do their share of chores. But as their dad and I bickered about who did the dishes, it never occurred to us to farm out that job. We bickered about how and when to put the laundry away, too. So I decided to J.C. this activity, too. After the dishes and breakfast, entering the second week of our new family arrangement, I plopped a basket of laundry on the boys’ floor and asked them to find their stuff and put it away.

Again with the together and the talking and the many hands making light work.

It’s been almost three months. And my kids are emptying and filling the dishwasher every day. And putting away every load of laundry.

And they’re doing it together, while I do something else domestic in the same room. Usually cooking or sweeping. Man, I love me some sweeping. Watch everything that’s wrong with your life gather in a pile, nudge it onto a dustpan, and throw it away forever. Then do it again in three hours because, geez, do these kids grow sand and dirt and…what is that, a twig?…out of their socks?

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

Forcing my kids Working together to do chores feels good. It feels even better to get the work done more quickly and with less fighting.

Thanks, J.C.
I owe you one!

11

We can do it.

The kidlets and I just came back from a camping trip. A whole-family camping trip. And it was amazing.

Challenging. And amazing.

I’ve posted here before about camping and about camping survival. But not yet about camping as a family who live in two houses yet share a tent for a few days in the summer because they’re trying their best to be a good family regardless of logistics. And I’ll post later about the good, the bad, and the midnight vomit I covered with campfire ash so bears wouldn’t come attack my poor food-poisoned child.

But those stories come later. This week I am feeling a bit weak and small, so I’m writing my story of strength.

We camp in the same place each year, beneath the pine trees and clear skies of Lake Tahoe. And on the second or third day of our trip, we do our favorite hike: 7.5 miles with significant elevation change (I think it’s 1,300+ feet total) from our campsite along the remarkable blue of the lake.

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We bring snacks and sandwiches, games and water shoes; and we climb the well-worn dirt path around granite boulders and past an amazing old lighthouse.

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We wind up, after long breaks where we play in the water and build fallen-branch structures, pausing at an old residence that makes me nostalgic for the time when I had millions of dollars and could own part of a lake, an island, and build my own castle.

No? Oh well.

Anyway, after the castle-y thing we walk up a steep road and catch a trolley back to a road about 1.5 miles from our tent. The day we do the hike is usually the crowning glory of our eldest’s year, and both his grownups quite enjoy it, too. I genuinely have no idea if it makes any impression on the four-year-old, but he rides on my back and his dad’s shoulders for much of it, so I can’t see how this hike is any different for him than any other. But who knows. He’s an enigma.

This year, once we got to the trolley stop, the boys’ dad wanted to run back along the lake, the long way, while the boys and I took the motorized shortcut back. Sure. No problem. We have no cell service, but we do have tons of food and water and we know the trolley is coming soon so we’ll likely beat him back to camp. The boys begin plotting how they’ll surprise their dad when he gets back.

So the boys and I sit on rocky half-wall in the 80-degree-sun and wait. And wait. And wait. Thankfully, there was a local family with two young boys waiting, too, who reassured us that the trolley was indeed running and that it would eventually be there.

We all watched carefully every vehicle that came into view along the winding highway, cursing each red car for not being a red and gold trolley. The selfies with my boys grew more and more deflated looking.

An hour later, after my sweet, tired little monkeys had sunk into the “you have to be kidding posture” when I offered snacks, water, and a cuddle for the nine-hundredth time, the trolley came. And oh, we did rejoice. The selfies grew adorably cheerful, and Butterbean, my chirpy four-year-old, sang us a trolley song.

And about 3/4 of a mile later, the trolley turned around.

“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” I asked, genuinely wide-eyed.

“We’re making a U-turn to go back to town,” an otherwise delightful woman told me.

I’m guessing I lookd around at the other passengers in a terrified manner befitting either my situation or a worldwide chocolate shortage, because the driver asked where we were going.

“To the state park a few miles up the road,” I said.

“This trolley doesn’t go there,” he said.

“Um… yuh-huh, it does,” I thought. It has for the past three years.

The processing took me 1/1,000,000,000th of a second. Okay: we’ll ride the trolley back to the stop and wait for one that does go to our stop. If he’ll let us off at Vikingsholm, the pretentious rich people castle place. I mean lovely piece of history. I mean…

Actually, no, the next trolley won’t go back to camp, either. The driver got out a brochure and showed me the new map of the trolley’s range. None of the trolleys were headed to our stop. They all turned around 3/4 of a mile from Vikingsholm.

My math slowed down a bit. I have two tired kids. We’ve hiked 6 miles already, and Peanut, who is now 8 and quite proud that he hikes 8 miles in Tahoe every year, is complaining about a sore foot. We have no cell service. Their dad has his phone off for obvious reasons. The town toward which the trolley is heading is 14 miles away and we have no way, once we get there, of getting back. It’s two hours until dark. I have a backpack full of water and snacks to wear in front and an ergo full of 40 pounds of preschooler on my back. It’s 6,800 feet above sealevel and we got here 24 hours ago, so I’m not acclimated. I am also keenly aware that I ran 5 miles in the morning, before we started this lovely, invigorating, breathtaking, family favorite hike.

Please, please no comments about the stupidity of a 5 mile run on a hiking day.

And I have no idea how far it is back to the camp. It’s certainly farther than 3 miles total if we walk on the side of the highway, but likely shorter than going back down to the gorgeous trail and adding another 6 miles. Or driving into town. Or…nope. That’s the end of the options. Walk or…I guess sit down and cry. Those are your choices, lady.

Tired 8-year-old, heavy pacsk, altitude, and at least 3 more miles, some of which on a busy-ish highway. My job is to protect my children. My job is to get them back to camp before dark. My job is to…

“We’ll walk,” I tell the entire trolley, sounding quite reassuring on purpose. I need, desperately, for my eldest to go along with this plan.

And he does.

About 20 feet in, he looks panicked. “Mom, do we have water?”

Smart boy. “Yup. I just refilled all three bottles. I have, no joke, 96 ounces of water, buddy.”

He is pleased with this answer. I am, too, except that 96 ounces of water is really freaking heavy. Six pounds? More than the dried fruit and GORP and crackers, but less than his brother, thank goodness.

So we walk. And I try hard not to think about how far it might be. I make myself remember that we have food and water. That nobody is hurt. That if the shoulder gets too narrow (which it did, several times), we can bide our time and run across the highway when it’s safe.

That totally fits the whole “keep your children safe” requirement, right? Have them avoid walking along a narrow shoulder by running across a highway?

Yeah.

To quiet the railing inner critics who disdained my decision (but didn’t offer any helpful suggestions, I noted both then and now), we talked as we walked about how their Dad was likely making dinner. And that he’d notice how late we were (now 90 minutes past our ETA) and come get us, probably. (Both were true. But he tried to find us by walking, not driving, so by the time he used the car we were 1/2 mile from camp. It was a very nice 1/2 mile ride, though.)

About a mile into the unplanned walk, Peanut faltered a bit and started to cry. “I just want to go home,” he said, revealing the vulnerable, tender heart he rarely lets us see, except at storytime just before bed.

I nodded as I motioned to him to keep going. “Yep. Me, too, buddy. And that’s what we’re doing. I don’t want to walk and you don’t want to walk, but we have food and water and we’re safe and we’re healthy and we’re going home.”

I’m going to be honest: I wanted to cry, too. And if he had whimpered even a little after my motivational speech, I would have sat down and bawled a good, old-fashioned Holly-Hunter-in-Broadcast-News cry.

But he threw his shoulders back and kept walking.

Peanut is 8 years old, and he walked 10 miles that day. With his backpack and completely unassisted. I am 41, and I traveled 14 miles: five miles running, six miles hiking with a full backpack, and four miles with two packs, one of which contained my sweet little baboon four-year-old. At altitude.

We did it. We both did it. We enjoyed the beauty, we loved the highlights, and we freaking motored through the unexpected bumps.

I told my amazing son, as we devoured warm tortellini and lentils a bit later, that I’d learned something that day.

“Yeah,” he said. “Never do that hike again.”

I laughed. “Well, maybe, but I learned that we’re really strong. You remember I told you that brave is when you’re scared but you do something anyway, because it’s important?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, we are strong. And we are brave. We were scared and we did it anyway.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “And also, never do that hike again.”

I laughed. No way. We’re doing that hike every year now. Because we can do it as an 11 mile loop now, without trolley and without steep road. And without even seeing that freaking highway.

Because we’re strong. And we’re brave.

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2

Move on, but how?

Two nights ago, I wrote this about the insanity in Ferguson:

I have no idea what to do with the news of a shooting and civil unrest and police insanity in Ferguson. I just don’t. I have no idea what it’s like to live in fear that my boys will be shot, unarmed, just because of who they are. And I have no idea what to do with people who assume that grotesque uses of police force are ever justified. I simply don’t know what to do with police wearing camo who refuse to hear peaceful protesters, and instead aim assault rifles at them from tanks. (What are they camouflaged for? They’re in a town. On streets. There are no fatigues for that. Stop hiding as though you’re in the freaking jungle. Put on your blues and walk your beat like a proper, compassionate, protect-and-serve cop.)

So I’ve compartmentalized my “I don’t know” into a tight, painful pit in my chest, and carried it around for several days. And it’s nothing compared with what millions carry, including people in communities who know their town, state, and country don’t care about them. So I swallow hard and move on.

But I couldn’t bear to post those unfinished thoughts, especially when they then led, in my draft, to a long list of the things causing me serious existential pain right now.

It’s obscene, I think, to ramble on about the joys and the pain in my life while the very foundation on which our society is based falls apart. I have no right to blog when people are being brutalized.

So tonight’s shift, wherein social media regales the world with the monumental difference between fear and communication, between criminalizing speech versus hearing protestors, between waging war within cities and showing compassion within communities, has begun the process of healing.

Not healing entirely. But cleaning off the wounds enough that we can start looking, and really seeing, what is going on in our country.

Changing the leadership from assault to engagement has made Ferguson feel safer tonight.

What are we going to do to make the rest of the country safer? More engaged? More honest about tensions? More open to solutions?

We need to talk about assumptions. We need to talk about law, rights, and enforcement. We need to talk about race, poverty, representation, and listening.

Where do we go from here?

14

Typewhater?

I love my old typewriter. I bought it decades ago and have moved it to a dozen houses. Yup. As in I’ve moved 12 times since I bought my old Royal.

And I realized a few months ago that it would be much more useful with a tuneup.

So the boys and I took it to the local typewriter repair shop (holla, Berkeley!) for a ribbon and an oiling.

And now, every night, I begin a letter to my children.

Yeah, that's right...no delete key and no white ribbon means I don't care if I misspell.

Yeah, that’s right…no delete key and no white ribbon means I don’t care if I misspell.

And then at breakfast I ask them to finish the letter.

Results are adorable, or worrisome, depending on your expectations for spelling and grammar.

We're still working on this daily habit.

Sometimes I forget, and eight-year-old Peanut does my job for me. Like dishes, but with random punctuation.

Some mornings I forget, and eight-year-old Peanut does my job for me.

I’m keeping every page. If I were an organized person, I’d pretend I were going to make them into a book. But they will stay in the drawer, in order, and then get put in a box. And when the boys are in college I’ll do something creative with them. For now: drawer.

Especially for keepsakes like this one, where our four-year-old patience-tester unwound the whole ribbon, then made fingerprint art all over the floor and fridge.

"You say I'll be right back, I hear please decorate with typewriter ink."

“You say I’ll be right back, I hear please decorate with typewriter ink.”

I didn’t think too much of this daily ritual we’ve just begun until a friend sent me a link to  this adorable video of children being bewildered by the existence of typewriters.

As delightful as that video is, I have to admit to being similarly baffled.

Where is the number one?

Seriously, where's the 1?

Seriously, where’s the 1?

 

Come on, really?

Come on, really?

I’ve tried hitting the margin release, in case that’s a stealth 1 in disguise. Like a hidden passage in the library, but dumber.

 

This is getting ridiculous.

This is getting ridiculous.

And now I feel like the kids in the video. Did the past not have 1:00? OR 12:00? Or any of the many, many minutes in between?

What did people in the past do at 8:15? Skip straight to 8:20? Was there a lot of rounding up to the nearest anything-but-ten in history?

Were they always using the slash to designate a 1? Doubtful. Nothing says confusion like “Please print / copy.”

Did they substitute? Probably not, since typewriters use an old school font called…um, TYPEWRITER. Rather serif-y and prone to Roman Numerals. If you use a capital “i” to designate the number 1, you’re stuck using Vs and Xs for the rest of the…whatever you’re typing.

And why so wordy with the tabular key? Tab is too…’80s? Wait…I guess I mean 1880s? Except for the 1, which didn’t exist, so they went from the Dark Ages to 2000?

I’m so confused.

But I’m creating memories, dagnabbit. And that’s all that matters, 1 or no 1.

Word up, little one who dictated this to an older brother. Preach.

Word up, little guy who dictated this to an older brother. Preach.

 

8

Trust

My sweet little Butterbean loves playing the game of trust. He stands about two feet away, makes his body rigid, and falls toward me. I catch him. He never doubts and he never falters. Neither do I.

This is the game we’re forced to play in team-building excursions, and most people can’t trust enough to just fall. We tend to take a step to catch ourselves, unwilling to trust someone else with our bodily safety.

But my son is willing. He trusts implicitly. And it’s thrilling for him, to know that I’ll get him, to know that it feels safe no matter what his brain tells him about gravity and danger.

four years ago, when Butterbean sought for anything to grab

four years ago, when Butterbean sought for anything to grab and I knew he was smart for grabbing me

And I realize, as we laugh and hug and play again and again, that this trust is the heartstopping part of parenting. He trusts me completely. And that feels intensely heavy, physically. That feels as though his little life and heart and future well-being follow me every minute of the day. Fragile. Important.

I’ve always taken parenting very, very seriously. We have fun, but I drive myself to distraction thinking of all the way to be right, to be ideal, to be precisely what the kids need. Because their trust is everything. It really is.

And my ridiculously lofty expectations mean that I fail. Every day.

“No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”

I try to not obsess with my constant failure. With my less-than-ness. I try to live in the moment and parent my best and do what feels right and true. Because that’s all I can do.

Last week, rushing to make Peanut’s lunch to get him to camp, I checked his backpack to find his missing lunchbox. It was there, mostly empty, festering in smooshing-proximity to a wet towel and wet swimsuit.

“Dude?” I said to him as I shook them all out and prepared to handle them. My job, when I’m home: handling. “It really helps when you take this out of your backpack after you get home. Hang it up, it dries. Leave it stuffed in a closed backpack, it stays cold and wet. And it likely feels better to put on dry rather than damp and clammy.”

He looked at me from across the living room, pausing in his enormously important task of the morning, something I couldn’t possibly understand because I’m mother and therefore flawed and ridiculous and wonderful but lame. He cocked his head.

“Look,” he said. “I’ll try. I hear you. But after a long day of playing, I’m just not sure I can remember. I’ll try, Mom. But I can’t promise anything.”

And I bifurcated. One half my mind thought, “well, for an eight year old that was ridiculously articulate, reasoned, and calm.” The other thought, “Geez, is that the way I talk to him? With weighty sighs at how ludicrous is this life and our expectations? Do I reason and articulate like that? Has the Beckett of ‘Fail again. Fail better’ so informing my demeanor that shrugging with impossibility has become the family motto?”

I don’t know. I know that split, the “wow you’re great humans,” and “wow, I’m ruining you” split applies to both of them. And the difference between them. The reasoned refusal to hang a wet towel and the joyful, trusting fall into my arms. The split mind happens whether I catch the trusting, falling child or whether I explain, rationally and dispassionately, why I dropped him.

I have to stop this post now before I want more babies. Look at that face!

I have to stop this post now before I want more babies. Look at that face!

 

6

Six years

When I checked in to read a friend’s post this morning, my blog told me I had registered six years ago today. It tried to tell me a few days ago, but I haven’t been listening to my blog lately. Because life.

Six years. Dang.

I began this blog because I was discombobulated by the daily realities of parenting a two-year-old far from home. The changes since then have been slow and deliberate, quick and unexpected, and everything in between.

As a journal of my thoughts, NaptimeWriting has been with me through a lot. Life and love and death and birth and books and clients and friends and five houses and a marriage that might or might not be over.

And I hope that I’m inspired to post more regularly, to record of my thoughts and experiences. Because that’s why I stated this process, and it’s what I love about online writing.

Happy birthday, little blog. You’re often overshadowed by the other parts of my life, but I’m awfully glad I began talking to you semi-regularly six years ago.

[Here's my one of my first posts, if you enjoy seeing raw, rookie efforts to filter the thousands of ideas generally flooding the brain of a new blogger.]

4

Don’t make me pull this car over

Hi, there. I know I’m parked out in front of your house and it’s creeping you out. I’m not getting out of the car, I’m not looking around, I’m not doing something obvious like making a call or eating lunch.

And I’m not acknowledging the kids in the backseat.

I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Sincerely. I’d park somewhere else if I could.

But my kids were calling each other stupid, so I pulled over. I’ve absolutely had it with namecalling, and your front yard is where I’m making my final stand. Well, probably not final. Honestly, only, like, second. And there will be dozens more just this week, I’m sure. So let’s call it penultimate. Because most people don’t know what that means. I’m making my penultimate stand before you, your family, and the neighbors. There will be no more “stupid” in my family.

I tell them what they practice is what they become. I tell them that calling names hurts peoples’ hearts. And I tell them to choose a kind word rather than a hurtful word.

But they think stupid is funny. There’s power in stupid. There’s power in making someone feel small. That’s not the power I want them to cultivate. I wouldn’t mind them cultivating sports or engineering or art or language; they can focus on motor skills large or small, ideas grand or practical. I don’t care what part of their brains they feed, except the part they were feeding just now, as we passed your house. I want them to nourish the kind part of themselves, not the cruel part of themselves. So when they call each other names I stop.

Starting now, here, where your wife is probably going to want to park when she gets home from her high powered, well respected career, I’m drawing the line. Is she an architect or judge or chemist or venture capitalist or something? My job, right now, is to make people not say stupid. Kind of like an architect/judge/chemist/venturecapitalist. But for kindness.

I’m going to ignore them until I hear each say something kind. I can tell from your face that you don’t like the sound of that plan, what with me invading your personal space and all. But I’m going to tell you two things. First, they’ll say something kind really soon. They did when we tried this the first time just down the block. They told each other “I love you, have a nice day,” prompted by the four-year-old’s attempt to end the standoff. But as soon as I pulled into the street they called each other “oopid,” which is what got us to your curb. And that brings me to my second point: this isn’t your curb. It’s public property in front of your house. You don’t own this curb. We all do. And I need it right now. Step off, yo.

Because I’m practicing sitting patiently in front of your house. It cultivates patience, deep breaths, and a stalker vibe I’ve always shunned. Patience is good, patience is good, patience is…Aha. They said something nice. We’re off.

Just remember this for next time, please. We drive this street all the time, and the odds that we’ll park in front of your house again are relatively high. but we’ll leave relatively quickly.

That? Oh, that’s them testing me. I’ll take them saying “poo poo pee pee poo poo pee pee” because they’re not calling each other names.

Shhhh. Let’s pretend, okay? I have places to be.